April 13, 2009

Adventureland review

See here for an earlier blurb. Since a lot of the movie's appeal is nostalgic, I thought about including more data on the social history behind the movie, but that'll go up in a separate post, probably at GNXP.com. Briefly, though, Adventureland does a good job of capturing the twilight period of society and culture after it had gotten over the dopey counter-culture of the late 1960s and early '70s. Starting around 1989, though, and peaking in 1991 - '92, a new wave of generalized hysteria infected the culture, giving birth to Generation X.

Set in 1987, the movie provides a refreshing glimpse of what it was like when people were still pretty carefree -- especially the relation between the sexes, which would soon become poisoned by moral panics about date rape, sexual harassment, and other legal fictions. The soundtrack captures the zeitgeist well too: even the sad music is catchy and upbeat, reflecting the heyday of "college radio" music, before grunge and alternative rock.

Another key to the movie's success is in casting actors who are all about the right age -- early 20s. Em is a bit younger, but that works out for the best, since we're supposed to feel sympathetic. Nothing is worse than movies about a particular stage of life, which star people who are much too old to be able to get into character.

The rest of this review contains spoilers.

On the surface, Adventureland is a male coming-of-age story. However, just like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, the movie is really about something else entirely: it is a movie that encourages single women to choose the more secure and stable boyfriend, however goofy or awkward he may be, over the more volatile and therefore more exciting boyfriends.

The male lead, James, faces no dilemma in choosing who to pursue: there is the female protagonist, Em, who he shares a lot in common with, who is pretty, and who gets a pretty sympathetic treatment from the writer; and then there is the elusive hot chick, Lisa P., who he doesn't relate to at all and who, although not caricatured, hardly gets portrayed in a positive light. We are never lead to believe that James has fallen emotionally for Lisa P., and since Em is pretty cute herself, it's a no-brainer throughout the entire movie that James should go for Em.

On the other hand, Em has become emotionally attached to and physically involved with two men: James and the smooth, older musician / technician Connell. This is the true source of dramatic tension -- will she stay addicted to the handsome, aloof guitar player, or will she fall for the guy she describes as "sweet"? The details about James' experiences and coming of age are not the point of the movie -- they serve only to establish that he's the right guy for Em.

Unlike the female character in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Em is still young enough to fall irrationally in love -- the actress who plays her was 17 during filming -- so in this movie, ending up with the safer boyfriend doesn't result from sobering up to reality and making a clear-headed decision to settle down. Something inside just compels her to. Because the focus here is on falling for someone -- which is involuntary -- and since young people act mostly on impulses, we're kept more in suspense about whether she'll end up with the good guy or the bad boy.

So, in contrast to the more didactic message of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, this movie only tries to remind young girls of who they should end up with. Even though adolescents are ruled by their passions, there is still a rational, calculating piece of their brain that takes into account -- however unconsciously -- the pros and cons of potential boyfriends. When dealing with middle-aged women, it is more appropriate for the movie to be a list of instructions to a compliant audience on how to behave. But Adventureland is more like a nervous advertiser that must cater to an unpredictable youth market. It therefore makes the best case it can for the benefits of choosing James over Connell, without coming off as preachy, and then just sits back and hopes that the female viewers will be persuaded on a gut level.

There's more to talk about, but in all the reviews I've read, the aspect of the movie that's least appreciated is who the movie is actually about -- Em, rather than James. I'll save a treatment of the movie's nostalgia for a follow-up post at GNXP.com, where there will be plenty of graphs on the change over time in the number of amusement parks, job-holding among young people, and so on.


  1. I'm old enough to have adult memories of 1987. It was, indeed, a pretty good time. The economy was in good shape, the stock market troubles that occurred in October not having wide-ranging consequences, and even most of the people who started out disliking Ronald Reagan had come around to admitting he was doing a decent job. The nuclear war hysteria (e.g. "The Day After") of a few years earlier had died down, and there was a sense that the Cold War was thawing out and communism was weakening, though few if any people could have predicted that the USSR was going to break up in a few years. And of course nobody was too concerned about terrorism in those days.

    Social concepts like political correctness and sexual harassment were maybe in their early stages in 1987 but registered very low in the public consciousness. Sexual harassment didn't become a Big Idea until the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy in 1991 and p.c. came along a few years later with Mark Furhmann and the O.J. Simpson trial. You might even have heard the occasional, mild ethnic joke in the workplace of 1987. Outright discrimination and racism was taboo, but there was nothing like today's witch hunt mentality.

    Culturally, my impression was that 1987 was a fairly quiet time, in the sense that people didn't feel as if there were huge changes or trends in progress.


  2. Im old enough to remember 1987 extremely well.

    It was a -great- time to be young and alive and happy.

    By 1991 MTV, which by then had become extremely powerful culturually, started to "change", and started to "direct" what attitudes that it was popular to have with its suddenly-less-musical programming.

    A show on MTV entitled "The Real World" began in about 92' or so, and on campus the kids suddenly became "politically correct" on their own to an extent. The date rape hysteria started in about 90' if I remember correctly, and freshman orientation at college was something the administration "strongly recommended" you go to (I didn't go, they didn't give grades there).

    The big three network news had been liberal-leaning throughout all of the eighties, but by 1990 CNN became very liberal quite suddenly. CNN believe it or not, had been a refuge for me to "just get the news". The change shocked me and was saddening in that all of the news was given from the leftist perspective. In about 1990-91 I first heard about Rush Limbaugh. He started the trend of fleeing conservatives (traditionalists) seeking refuge by listening to a talk-radio host disseminate the news from the newspapers they wouldn't stomach buying/supporting.

    No girl in 1987 you'd date in high school (or 88 or 89 or 90 either) would have even heard of "patriarchy", or would have called consensual sex "date rape" if a guy didn't call her the next day, or was eager to discuss "glass ceilings" as a way to put a college guy on the defensive about him being a male (as if he could do anything about that in college, etc). The media directed these changes in attitudes, but this was the era when cable/broadcast had the most power that it ever had (before talk radio, the internet).

    Grunge was the biggest mood-scam/mind fuck from the elite-to-the-masses that ever was. Think about it guys...............people LIKED happy-go-lucky Van Halen, Journey, Boston, Phil Collins, Aerosmith-music then all of a sudden a bunch of weak-bearded, unkempt-flannel wearing whiners from perpetually dreary Seattle were THRUST by MTV into the forefront and had their videos put in heavy rotation showcasing their "cool" alternative (liberal) social attitutdes and tattoes and ANGST and GUILT (guilt for the entire history of Western Civilization, patriarchy*, environmental degradation, and racism) for white kids to mope, er.......absorb from, while blacks were given aggressive, loud'n'proud gangsta rap to listen to proclaiming their utter-badassery and how "the man" was so afraid of them and how tough they were and how "bitches" couldn't resist them.
    Which group of young males do you think would "go forth confidently" after their music has programmed their attitudes after listening to this garbage throughout their adolescence?

    *** Pearl Jam, that bag of douchery, was the first band I remember that from the stage mouthed stuff (in the Clinton-Bush-Campaign of 92') like, "we have to keep abortion legal for our mothers and our sisters", and similar tripe. It was the lefties' dream..............the most aggressive music that the higher testosterone males were ---allowed---to listen to was urging them to believe that leftism was the masculine choice to make.

    Its hard for me to believe that was the result of chance. I think MTV execs like Judith McGrath, who had been there from the start and is a famously leftist nutjob, had much to do with what got promoted and what got requested from record companies like Sony for usage in heavy rotation on MTV. Thankfully, MTV's cultural power has waned considerably, even on campus. I think kids being able to get into bars at 18, instead of moping around the dorm watching MTV, has probably had something to do with that as well as YouTube and music-sharing and more cable choices.

    Sorry...........that was Whiskey-esqe in length I know. Ive had these observations for years and have never expressed them anywhere.

  3. Great observations of 1987. Thanks guys. I was a teenager in '87 and I agree about the easy-going fun atmosphere at the time.

    Tease the girls at school, go to wrestling practice, and crank Van Halen (or Boston and Foreigner when with cool older seniors)

    I always thought Phil Collins a preachy liberal douche, but bands like (Van Halen, Journey) did capture the fun/earnest essence of the period.

    I was in my very early twenties during the Grunge period, and still have vivid recollections of how much I loathed the social changes that were being ushered in around 1990-92.

    I wasn't sophisticalted enough politically to see Bush I for the phoney aristo he was, but the Clinton/Gore campaign felt like an obscenity.

  4. Reading the review and comments makes me wish that I could go back and relive the 80's just to see what it was like. I don't remember that much. I was about 9 or 10 when the 80's were over.

  5. Thinking back to 1987, I'd have to say that the worst aspect of the time was that materialism was running rampant. It was the high point of conspicuous consumption, BMW-driving, Rolex-owning Yuppie culture, much more blatant in my opinion than was the recently ended period of prosperity. One thing that really sticks out - why, I cannot say - is the way it was trendy for young men to wear suspenders and bow ties, this being perceived as more upscale than ordinary ties and belts ... come to think of it, 1987 was around when "upscale" was becoming a grossly overused term.

    I was about to say that another negative thing about 1987's culture is that AIDS paranoia was running rampant, but upon further thought the fear was starting to diminish by then although it was still high. People were starting to realize that the disease could not be contracted through casual contact and that non-drug-using heterosexuals were at low risk.

    Other than these two things, I really can't think of many bad things about life in 1987. There were perhaps some lingering fears of nuclear Armageddon, but anyone under 50 or so at the time had been living with them his or her entire adult life, so I can't really count them.


  6. I was about 9 or 10 when the 80's were over.So was I. I may not have been working at a carnival or listening to college radio, but I still have awesome memories: Madballs, Rock Lords, Nintendo, climbing trees, swimming pools, riding my bike, roller skating, etc.

    Most of that stuff is gone too.


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